A Revolution for Readers

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Without readers, we couldn’t make a living. And without writers, they would have no books. Everything else is just window dressing.

Columns, David Gaughran, Homepage Sub  •  Aug 23, 2011

E-books have been around for decades, but only become easy to disseminate with the widespread availability of the Internet in the 1990s. However, another development was required to unlock their potential: a killer device, the Kindle. Once Amazon opened up their digital self-publishing platform, all the pieces were in place for writers to strike out on their own. But what has this meant for readers?

Most of the chatter in the publishing world centers on what all these changes mean for literary agents, publishers, booksellers, and writers. Each new set of statistics is debated, often quite passionately, as everyone tries to figure out where the e-book juggernaut is headed.

A lot of people seem to forget that there are only two essential components of the equation: writers and readers. Without readers, we couldn’t make a living. And without writers, they would have no books. Everything else is just window dressing.

All of the other players (agents, editors, publishers, distributors, retailers) can add value to the equation, but they are not essential. They aren’t necessary. I could publish my own work and sell it on my site. Readers could buy it and read it. Nothing else is required.

I choose to give a percentage to retailers because they can bring me more readers. And if I was to ever sign a publishing deal, or seek out an agent, I would view it through that same prism: how many (more) readers can you get me?

Amongst writers, a lot of the focus is on royalty rates, publishing contracts, advances, and sales numbers. We argue about whether self-publishing is a viable path, whether we could have greater exposure with a publishing deal, or if we should continue to deal with agents.

There is less talk about what this revolution has meant for readers. One simple point has been left out of all the arguments: if readers didn’t like indie books, they wouldn’t keep buying them, and indie writers would all fade into obscurity and return to the gates of Big Publishing with their cap in their hand.

But readers keep buying indie books in greater numbers. A year ago you could count the number of indie writers doing well on one hand. Now, I could probably name fifty off the top of my head. They’re just the ones I know of, and I know plenty more who are on the way.

Why are readers attracted to indie books? Price is the obvious answer. There are plenty of great indie books out there for under $5, and most cost a lot less. But it’s not the only answer. In fact, I would argue that diversity of selection is just as important.

When I was growing up, I loved to wander through bookstores. Each one had its own quirks, its own personality, and a completely different selection of books. Looking back, they probably had the same books, more or less, but they chose to push different titles, so the ones I would see on the tables or in the displays were radically different.

When did bookstores all start looking the same? When did the books that were being pushed become homogenized? I can’t remember exactly, but I do know there was a point when I started ignoring the racks and the tables and just dived into the “spine out” bookshelves, hoping to find something a little different. And I also know that over the years, my purchasing decisions became a lot easier as there were less and less books that interested me.

If you talk to other readers, one of their biggest complaints is that so many books are the same. Publishers just seem to chase one fad after the next, hoping to ride the sales wave of the latest bestseller. And because it takes them so long to publish a book, they have to guess what the fad will be in a year or two’s time and often get it very badly wrong.

Indies move fast. They can chase a trend when it’s hot and drop it like a stone when the market is sated. But more importantly, they don’t have to chase trends at all. They can write whatever they like. Non-writers can’t understand how liberating that is: knowing you can write whatever you like and publish it whenever you like.

In the past writers were restricted by what their agent or editor thought would sell. They were steered away from Horror for years, laughed at if they suggested a Western, and disabused of any notions of penning short stories or novellas. But it turns out there is a market for all that stuff.

I would go further: it turns out there is a market for anything. Welcome to the age of the micro-niche! If you want to read a book about space-faring dragons written in iambic pentameter, it’s probably out there. If you have written a time-travel romance about a Nebraskan widow and the scurvy-riddled pirate who captures her heart, there are readers for that too.

Writers can write whatever they want. And, more importantly, readers can read whatever they want. That’s the real revolution.

David Gaughran is the author of If You Go Into The Woods, Transfection, and Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. You can catch him at http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com

12 Responses to “A Revolution for Readers”

  1. avatar DL Morrese says:

    Great post. Thanks!

  2. avatar Martin Lake says:

    This is a breath of fresh air. It is good to see a focus on readers. The relationship between readers and writers is always symbiotic and even more so with e-books. Big business doesn’t get in the way. Writers have a more direct link with their readers and vice-versa. Great to see this site. Martin Lake

  3. avatar Carradee says:

    “there is a market for anything

    So true!

    I’ve been watching self-publishing’s viability since Lulu was new, back when POD couldn’t compete on a price level with conventionally published books. I always did love the sound of it, as both a writer and a reader.

    I read and enjoy a large number of authors. But the number of authors I’ll actively promote are few.

    Some months ago, an indie author of paranormal romance said something to the effect that she’d rather write an action scene than a sex scene. I commented that she didn’t have to write steamy. She replied that adult paranormal romance had to be steamy.* I’ve since found even a conventionally published author of non-steamy adult paranormal romance, as well as others who would gladly read it if they could find it.

    So while the “If you write it, they will come” is very much a myth, I do believe that “If you write it, there will be an audience”. The ‘trick’ is to get yourself noticed so the audience finds you.

    *Note: I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with writing to conventional market expectations, if that’s what you want to do.

  4. avatar Joe Barlow says:

    Well said, David. Self-distributed e-books are shaking the entire publishing industry to its foundation, and allowing a lot of previously unknown gems to come to light (along with, admittedly, a lot of dreck). Never before have writers been able to exert so much control over their work, if they so choose. Self-publishing isn’t for everyone, but for those whose tastes ran anathema to the New York literary mindset, it’s a good time to be both a reader and a writer.

  5. avatar David Wright says:

    Well said, David. This revolution truly allows the market to decide what sells and what doesn’t. And the market, is of course, readers.

    No longer do authors have to worry if a publisher THINKS a book will sell. That onus is now on writers and their ability to market.

    I think this revolution gives a chance for new sorts of publishing trends, which you rarely saw under the old model. For instance, I don’t think for a minute, that as an unknown author, I’d be able to sell the idea of short serialized books to a publisher. But thanks to eBooks, I am finding my own readers and don’t need to worry about publishers not willing to take a chance on me.

    I’m guessing that others out there will have even more radical ideas, which could shape not only e-publishing in the future, but perhaps it will impact traditional publishing.

    It’s never been a better time to be a reader! Viva la Revolucion!

  6. avatar jim bronyaur says:

    Wow David, this was a great article.

    I remember as a kid wandering through the school library, being amazed at all the words. And then the local library and its endless array of books. To me the place was a mansion. I see once in a great while when I go back to where I was raised and it still brings back old memories of working on school projects or reading about the human body (that was when I wanted to be a doctor… thanks to Stephen King, I switched to horror!)

    I love your thoughts on the reader… they are the power right now – and will continue to be so. They can find what they want with no barriers.

    It’s a great time right now and while things are going to continue to change, I believe it will all be for the better.

    -JB

  7. avatar ToniD says:

    You are so right.

    The Indie world has made it so fast and easy for writers to connect with readers, which is key to this whole endeavor.

    And, er, regarding niches: how about a hedgehog detective?

  8. I’ve got a sense of deja vu. In the 80s, it was difficult to sell my jewellery to shops. “We don’t sell anything like that,” the manager would say, shaking his head, or he’d play safe and buy so few pieces customers wouldn’t notice them. It was frustrating, as the two or three shops that did give me a substantial order sold them and came back for more.

    Then I got a Saturday stall at Covent Garden Market, selling direct to the public. Turned out they really loved my designs. By 1984 I was able to buy a flat.

  9. avatar Paul Clayton says:

    David,
    I so agree. Especially with this: Writers can write whatever they want. Actually we’ve always had that right. Problem was, publishers wouldn’t touch it unless it fit the mold. That’s still the case but it no longer matters. I have readers that love my latest book and some, not many, that hate it. But it’s selling good. And I so love the fact that my next won’t be ‘kept out,’ shunned, by publishers. I’ll just go around them. And that book will find the readers it’s written for.
    Best!

  10. Thanks to everyone for all the responses.

    As some as you have noted above, we don’t just have freedom of subject matter – there’s form too. Novellas and short stories are on the way back. Some people are doing interesting things with serialized stories and modern versions of the choose your own adventure books. This, I think, is only the tip of the iceberg, and as the formats and e-readers develop, there are all sorts of possibilities.

    Personally, I’m enjoying the freedom of not having that filter in the creative process anymore: will an editor/agent like this?

    It truly is liberating – for writers and readers alike.

  11. avatar Pete Grimm says:

    I agree with J.A. Konrath, the deal Simon and Schuster just made with John Locke will hasten the demise of big publishing houses. However, print has a long way to go before dying altogether. A distribution chain to surviving bookstores will emerge. I just wonder what form it will take and what role the independent author will play. The times they are a changin’. Cheers, Pete Grimm

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